A landmark study on the value of Australian screen content has been a welcome revelation for industry practitioners across the board. Don Groves talks to Nick Murray (CJZ), Rick Maier (Network Ten), Ryan Griffen, Tony Clark (Rising Sun Pictures), Rachel Griffiths, Joel Pearlman (Roadshow) and Vicki Madden (Sweet Potato Films).
The Screen Currency report commissioned by Screen Australia should be bedtime reading for everyone in the industry, according to Nick Murray.
“For years the production industry has been seen as a cash drain and an artistic enterprise,” says Murray, the co-founder and M.D. of CJZ. “In reality, we are a large employer and an exciting part of the creative industry. We need to keep up with international trends, focus on the audience and do what we can to support the networks in Australia by making shows people keep watching.”
But does everyone else in the industry hold that view? Since Screen Currency’s release in November, Screen Australia has consulted widely with stakeholders, including a presentation at Screen Forever and a national roadshow, to gauge the industry’s reactions and opinions. Independent of Screen Australia, I asked an array of industry practitioners spanning production, acting, writing, distribution and facilities, for their responses. I asked: How did the findings accord with your industry knowledge and experience? Were you surprised by some of the revelations? How might sectors of the screen industry use the report in continuing to advocate for policies to strengthen the business of developing, financing, producing and marketing content? The following is a summary of their responses, views and ideas: all their own work.
Network Ten Head of Drama Rick Maier hails the report as a good news story, financially and culturally, that should be shouted from the rooftops. “As an export industry and as a boost for tourism you’d be hard pressed to find any other industry returning this much value,” Maier says.
One of the industry’s rising talents, Ryan Griffen, creator of the ABC’s acclaimed series Cleverman, was pleasantly surprised by the revelations that 98% of the respondents in a survey analysed by Olsberg SPI watch Australian content, 64% say Australian content accounts for up to half their viewing and 76% believe the Government should support the screen sector.
“I’ve always thought Australian television was a dirty word for our audience, like it was something that they had looked down on,” says Griffen, despite the fact Australian shows have long dominated the top 50 programs. “Some of these figures are clearly showing the want and need for well-produced Australian content that can stand side by side with our international counterparts. If we are to uphold this and be competitive this industry needs the support.”
As Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) co-founder/MD Tony Clark observes, the study complements the work of marketing body Ausfilm and reinforces the value of the entire screen industry. “If I’m surprised by anything in the report, it’s the level of commitment by Australian audiences to domestic content,” says Clark, whose VFX firm’s latest credits include xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Alien: Covenant, Logan and Kimble Rendall’s Nest.
The broad-based screen production industry contributed $3.072 billion to the economy and more than 25,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs in 2014/15, according to the report by Deloitte Access Economics. Australian features, TV dramas and documentaries generated an estimated $847 million in value add and 7,650 FTE jobs.
“It’s crazy that we still have to do the economic justification for both our cultural enjoyment and our cultural producing,” says actor Rachel Griffiths, who welcomes the evidence-based data confirming the value of Australian content. Aside from her iconic turns in Muriel’s Wedding and overseas hit Six Feet Under, Griffiths recently co-produced and starred in Australian online comedy Little Acorns and obtained development funding for bio pic Ride Like A Girl.
Roadshow Group co-CEO Joel Pearlman says, “It is very pleasing to see the direct and indirect benefits to the economy and the audience’s interest in the sector, and the recognition of the importance of Australian stories.”
When asked to cite three pieces of Australian content they considered to be culturally valuable, 1,049 respondents identified 271 separate pieces of content or content types spanning film and TV classics such as Crocodile Dundee, Gallipoli, Muriel’s Wedding, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Home and Away, plus factual programs such as Four Corners and natural history documentaries.
Griffiths isn’t surprised that Muriel’s Wedding, the 1994 career breakthrough for her, co-star Toni Collette and writer-director PJ Hogan, is so cherished. “Everywhere I go in the world people bring up that movie,” she says. “It exported our sense of humour, wildness and freshness culturally to the world. It’s never really been forgotten. We needed a film industry that backed a particular kind of filmmaker in PJ Hogan to find Toni and me because we were certainly not on the ingénue shelf of likely up-and-coming Hollywood actresses. Without that break who knows what theatre company I would be working for today?”
Partly funded from the proceeds of the sale of the former Film Australia site in Lindfield, the report provides plenty of ammunition for sections of the screen industry to continue their advocacy for government support, including Ausfilm’s long-running campaign to raise the location offset from 16.5% to 30%.
RSP’s Clark argues the offset is globally uncompetitive and that major international productions will not consider shooting in Australia unless there are top-ups from federal or state governments. The downside is these top-ups create a cap so producers are discouraged from spending above that level, which means a lot of PDV work on projects shot in Australia ends up going offshore.
“The resolution would be to raise the location offset permanently,” he says. “There would be a constant influx of production and post production to Australia, allowing businesses and talent to grow consistently instead of the current piecemeal approach.
“In the absence of the will to make this change, then at least allow the location offset productions to utilise the PDV offset as well as the location offset to stop PDV companies being shut out of major roles in location offset inbound production.
Screen Producers Australia has long lobbied for the TV producer offset to be doubled to 40%, matching that for feature films. “The difference in offset between film and TV is mystifying,” Murray contends. “There is no doubt that there would be significant benefits from increasing the TV offset level. Currently Screen Australia does not have the ability to fund more than one program per network at each round. That is an artificial limitation on drama production and is limiting the further growth of the sector.”
Sweet Potato Films’ Vicki Madden, who co-created and co-produced Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident with Vincent Sheehan’s Porchlight Films, believes the study should prompt the industry to find more effective ways of training people across all facets of production. She advocates making it compulsory for producers to use attachments in every department on films and TV dramas.
“Script writers are under-valued in a shocking way in Australia,” she says. “In the UK and US screenwriters are household names along with directors and actors. They can get shows up based on their body of work. The problem in Australia is that there is no incentive for screenwriters to create original work to sell. I am an expert on living in poverty because I choose to do this, whereas I could make a comfortable living being a writer-for-hire.”
Griffen got his start in the industry as an intern to the Goalpost producers on The Sapphires and on a director’s attachment on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, leading to a collaboration with Goalpost’s Rosemary Blight on Cleverman, which has been renewed for a second season by Sundance TV and the ABC.
“Any foot in the door is critical in this industry,” he says. “Honing your craft is equally as important as meeting new people and building personal connections in this industry. Supporting new talent is essential for growth of the talent themselves but also the growth of content made in this country. New talent means new stories.”
The report acknowledges the impact of digital disruption on free-to-air networks and ancillary markets. Maier observes that overall demand for content has never been stronger and while fragmentation has created many new opportunities, it’s also put pressure on broadcasters and other distributors of content.
“As with the US and the UK, we are finding new ways to evaluate our reporting to find the true worth of a new program,” he says. “This is a changing landscape, but we don’t see the demand for locally produced content reducing any time soon. More the opposite.”
Read more about Screen Currency and how it measured the industry’s contribution to tourism here.